Confidentiality, trust and a place to sleep

3rd November 2000 at 00:00
There are a host of reasons why young people disappear from the system: they may be homeless, sleeping on friends' floors or on the streets; they may lack the basic skills to apply for benefit; they may not want to be part of a system that links benefits and training. They may be working cash- in-hand or for a sweat-shop employer - a problem the Government regularly tries to stop. A minority undoubt-edly get sucked into crime.

According to Chrissie Farley, principal of Hackney Community College, Ofsted's figures on missing 16-year- olds may underestimate the problem. There is a huge turnover as young people migrate in and out of inner-city areas. Without firm statistics, it is hard to verify numbers.

Lack of basic skills is a common factor behind their drift into crime. "Poor basic skills means that young people lose out on jobs, housing, relationships, stability," says Andrea Mearing of the Basic Skills Agency. "The 16 to 25 age range is our target group and projects we fund start at a local level."

One of the agency's most successful weapons in the fight to prevent exclusion of young people is the adult and community fund that it administers jointly with Niace, the national organisation for adult learning. Its projects rely on involvement by the local community. These include outreach education programmes for groups ranging from prostitutes, to teenage mothers, young offenders and the homeless. Confidentiality and building trust are vital but results are often hard to quantify as even small progress can be significant.

"The projects keep records like date of birth and learning goals but not whether they'r on the electoral roll," says Ms Mearing.

The Foyer movement has a different agenda - homelessness. Based on an idea that has worked successfully in France, Foyers provide good-quality, subsidised accommodation to help young people migrating to towns and cities in search of work. Lack of a fixed address is a real barrier to opportunity, so Foyers provides young people with rent-free accommodation until a job or training grant can be sorted out.

But a place on a training course is no guarantee a student will stay the course. Jonathan Gregory, manager of Focus E15, the Stratford Foyer, says the Government's decision to link training with benefits is a recipe for disaster. "The trouble with New Deal is it's so bloody harsh. If you miss one or two sessions, your benefits stop, then you can't afford to pay the rent. And when that happens, everything - your whole life - starts to fall apart."

Desperate to get to grips with the problem, the Government is next year launching a new learning framework for teenagers, Connexions. Run by the new learning and skills councils, the new service will pull strands of youth provision together and will tackle areas of greatest need as well as allocating personal advisers to young people identified as being at risk of dropping out of the system.

Jan Eldred, head of foundation studies at Rotherham College, comments:

"Connexions will be positive. It'll bring the bits and pieces together and create a holistic approach 16 to 19. It's flexible enough to bring more young people into education but as with any system there are always some who will slip through the net."

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